After rebuking prosecutors, defense attorneys and a criminal court judge, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned a former East Liberty man's death sentence and murder convictions, saying he was tried in the wrong state for killing two Ohio college students.
The Ohio court, in a unanimous ruling that startled attorneys in Ohio and Pennsylvania, yesterday said Terrell Yarbrough, 24, should have been tried in Pennsylvania for the 1999 slayings of Aaron Land and Brian Muha, two students at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
In tossing out the death sentence imposed after Yarbrough's convictions on 12 counts of aggravated murder in 2000, the court said Ohio authorities lacked jurisdiction to try him for slayings committed in Pennsylvania during a series of crimes that began in Ohio.
The court, however, upheld Yarbrough's convictions for kidnapping, robbery and other offenses committed against the students in Ohio and his resulting sentences totaling 59 years. It also said that Pennsylvania authorities may still prosecute Yarbrough for the slayings.
The ruling, issued during an automatic review of Yarbrough's death-penalty case, hinges on the court's finding that Ohio law specifically states that, in homicide cases, an act or physical contact resulting in death must occur in Ohio.
That issue was not raised by Yarbrough's original defense attorneys, the judge who presided over his trial or state public defenders who have represented him in subsequent proceedings.
That discovery prompted Chief Justice Thomas Moyer to chastise trial prosecutors, defense attorneys and Ohio's Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge Joseph J. Bruzzese Jr. for failing to properly apply the law. Bruzzese could not be reached yesterday.
"One would expect that those charged with the responsibility of participating in the prosecution of a defendant who is subject to the ultimate penalty would exercise more diligence," Moyer wrote.
Land, 20, of Philadelphia, and Muha, 18, of Westerville, Ohio, were attending summer classes when they were robbed and kidnapped from their Steubenville apartment by two men. They were driven into Pennsylvania in a Chevrolet Blazer stolen from Muha, then shot to death on a hillside above Route 22 in Robinson, Washington County.
The case sparked a jurisdictional battle between then-Jefferson County, Ohio, Prosecuting Attorney Stephen M. Stern and Washington County District Attorney John C. Pettit. Both sought to pursue murder charges and death-penalty convictions against Yarbrough and his co-defendant, Nathan Herring of Steubenville.
But Pettit eventually acceded to Stern's argument that the slayings resulted from the series of crimes that began in Steubenville. Both prosecutors said they believed it would be more efficient and compassionate to the victims' families to hold one trial for each defendant rather than two trials in two states.
Stern yesterday insisted he'd handled the case properly and accused the court of "judicial activism" by imposing an overly narrow interpretation of the jurisdiction statute.
"Now they're going to cost the state of Pennsylvania hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said. "Justice was not served here."
But Pettit said Stern had been uncooperative after the suspects were arrested in Steubenville. He said Stern had suggested to him in 1999 that it would be difficult for Pettit to prosecute a case when most witnesses were in Ohio. Pettit said he'd worried about jurisdiction issues then, but bowed out after he sought legal opinions from various sources and was "told emphatically" that Stern could handle the case.
Pettit said yesterday he now must start from scratch with the 5-year-old case and must interview the victims' families before deciding if he will pursue homicide charges against Yarbrough.
Herring, 23, also was convicted of aggravated murder in Ohio and is serving life without parole. It was unclear yesterday if he plans to file an appeal on similar jurisdictional grounds.
Current Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Brian Felmet, who was Herring's defense attorney before taking office, said he was surprised by the ruling because he believed the jurisdiction issue had been resolved.
Felmet has recused himself from the case, but Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Becker called the ruling "a great miscarriage of justice" and said he will ask the court to reconsider it.
Staff writer Joe Smydo contributed to this report. Cindi Lash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-263-1973.